Processes at the margins of supraglacial debris cover: quantifying dirty ice ablation and debris redistribution

Catriona Fyffe, Amy S. Woodget, Martin Kirkbride, Philip Deline, Matt Westoby, Benjamin Brock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)
35 Downloads (Pure)


Current glacier ablation models have difficulty simulating the high‐melt transition zone between clean and debris‐covered ice. In this zone, thin debris cover is thought to increase ablation compared to clean ice, but often this cover is patchy rather than continuous. There is a need to understand ablation and debris dynamics in this transition zone to improve the accuracy of ablation models and the predictions of future debris cover extent. To quantify the ablation of partially debris‐covered ice (or ‘dirty ice’), a high‐resolution, spatially‐continuous ablation map was created from repeat unmanned aerial systems (UAS) surveys, corrected for glacier flow in a novel way using on‐glacier ablation stakes. Surprisingly, ablation is similar (range ~5 mm w.e. per day) across a wide range of percentage debris covers (~30‐80%) due to the opposing effects of a positive correlation between percentage debris cover and clast size, countered by a negative correlation with albedo. Once debris cover becomes continuous, ablation is significantly reduced (by 61.6% compared to a partial debris cover), and there is some evidence that the cleanest ice (<~15% debris cover) has a lower ablation than dirty ice (by 3.7%). High‐resolution feature tracking of clast movement revealed a strong modal clast velocity where debris was continuous, indicating that debris moves by creep down moraine slopes, in turn promoting debris cover growth at the slope toe. However, not all slope margins gain debris due to the removal of clasts by supraglacial streams. Clast velocities in the dirty ice area were twice as fast than clasts within the continuously debris‐covered area, as clasts moved by sliding off their boulder tables. These new quantitative insights into the interplay between debris cover characteristics and ablation can be used to improve the treatment of dirty ice in ablation models, in turn improving estimates of glacial meltwater production.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2272-2290
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number10
Early online date18 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020


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